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Catch Them Doing Right

Let’s face it – even a leader with a healthy ego knows he or she can’t succeed alone. Success depends a lot (maybe even entirely) on the performance of our people. So as ‘Wise Leaders’, we’re always keeping an eye on them – it’s a big part of our job. But what are we looking for?

Our human tendency is to always be on the lookout for problems. In fact our brains are hardwired to be on guard for potential threats to our existence, which is why we survived as a species (thanks brain!). If you extend this into leadership, the perceived ‘threat’ can come in the form of a team member screwing up. Cue the kind of hyper vigilance that can make that leader come across as a total jerk; just waiting for someone to drop the ball so they can pounce. Conversely – if there’s no apparent ‘problem’, we just move on to other threats or issues. Cue seeming disinterest or neutrality. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Think about your own experiences with feedback. Ever worked in a place where you felt that you did a hundred things well and heard little or nothing from ‘the boss’? But mess up, even once, and all of a sudden the bright spotlight swings around to you like one of those prison escape scenes. As leaders we just don’t focus enough time, effort, or attention on what our people do well based on the mistaken assumption that success requires us to take no action, but that mistakes do.

But what if we flipped that logic on its head? What would happen if we made the effort to catch employees doing something RIGHT for a change?

Research tells us that recognizing the stuff your people do well is a fundamental part of job satisfaction and often leads to even better performance. So when our team rocks, we need to let them know that we’ve noticed. Any praise or recognition reinforces success, making it more likely that it’ll be repeated (makes sense, no?). Research also tells us that the ratio of positive to negative messaging has to be at least 5 positive to 1 negative to feel balance because our brains are naturally wired to weight negative feedback much heavier than positive.

Here’s an example. A talented project manager was super-successful in his position for over 3 years and was widely recognized by others to be a rock star. His boss consistently postponed any feedback because he felt the project manager was doing well and knew it. While this initially worked (it was a big ego boost) the employee soon began to feel as if his boss took him for granted and didn’t appreciate his work. The other project managers who screwed up were given extra training, tons of face time and numerous ‘developmental’ lunches with the boss. Because he could ‘handle it’, all he got was extra work. Eventually, one important project blew up and caught the attention of the boss. The PM was called into several disciplinary meetings, told that he let the organization and his boss down, and had his competence questioned. The PM, still quite aware of his strengths, simply flipped his boss the bird and dumped the company. Talk about a leadership #fail.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just common sense. Unless you inherited an entire company (lucky you if you did) it’s likely you’ve been someone else’s employee and you get this concept because you’ve lived it. The takeaway? Just be as outwardly happy when things go well as you are outwardly disappointed when things go poorly. Hey – why not go wild and actually plan a sit down just to tell someone they’re awesome.

So walk around. Catch your people doing something right for a change. They’ll love you for it.

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